Filed under: Fiction
Three novelists consider their own second novels
Starting out as a novelist is to be surrounded by naysayers. When you tell people you are writing your first novel all they talk about is how hard it is to get published. When you manage that they shake their heads and murmur, All very well to write a first novel but what about a second? There’s the challenge. Frankly, I find all my books a challenge. I did not study creative writing and so I learned everything at the coalface of my first novel. I had to learn how to best use tense, perspective, dialogue, how to begin and end a story, to create a voice for each character, and I learned why writing a debut novel in four first-person narratives was not the best idea. When I came to my second novel, The Memory of Love, I had at least some sense of what I was supposed to be doing. The book involved months of research and was nearly three years in the writing. By the end of it I was hardly able to stand up straight, my hands were crabbed. The novelist Linda Grant told me I had ‘writer’s back’ and she sent me straight to see a physiotherapist. I’ve learned to take more care of myself when I’m writing now. The Memory of Love was my most successful novel and people still write to me about it. There are some things, technical things, I know could be improved but that’s just a sign of growing as a writer. I still love the characters: Elias, Kai, Adrian, Mamakay. I have never stopped thinking about them, where they are and what they might be doing. I recently finished a new novel, Happiness, in which I have brought a character from The Memory of Love back. He was a minor character, not a major character, but I found I could not stop thinking about him. Now he has his own book.
I wrote my second novel in Saudi Arabia, not in the glamorous surroundings supposed to characterise expatriate life, but in my third home within a year, in what was known as the Ten House Compound – a group of prefabs, twenty years past their sell-by date, with rats in the roofs. Enclosed from the city by a big wall, air conditioners spewing mould with every gasp, I sat down to write a violent black comedy set in England in 1984.
My first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, starred Muriel Axon: mad, bad and dangerous to know. In the final chapter she was carried off to a psychiatric hospital. My idea was that ten years later she would be released for ‘care in the community’, free to revisit old haunts and murder people. I hoped to call it ‘Another Day for Mother’, but my publisher feared that would tie it too tightly to the first book. I remember her slow spreading smile when I came up with a new title, Vacant Possession.
I hadn’t left a narrative opening for a sequel – I hadn’t thought of it – so I had to be cunning. And if it was to come out with my first paperback, I had to be fast. I wrote every morning. When my husband came home from the Ministry of Mineral Resources I read him the results, at the siesta hour. I had to keep him awake. Each day’s narrative had to be stranger than the last.
It was done in six months. The reviews were great, the sales negligible. I soon got used to this pattern of events. In my time off from writing this second book, I was leading the life (and keeping the journal) that would result in the third. That also was a pattern I would get used to: continuous processing, if not continuous improvement.
No one is more surprised than I at the speed at which my second novel, The Lives of Others [winner of the 2014 Encore Award], came together. I had about 75 pages in September 2010; in two years, it was finished, totalling 650 pages. I am a very slow writer, so this was somewhat of an aberration. I know anecdotal evidence with a data point of one is no evidence at all, but in my case the dreaded second-album syndrome seems not to have struck. It’s difficult to answer why this was so, as it is to answer that ubiquitous question directed at all writers: ‘How did your book come about?’ Let me see if I can reach towards an answer to the former by attempting some kind of response to the latter.
Writers rarely have access to that part of their heads where books originate. One can talk cogently of influences, plotting, putting a book together, structuring, editing, everything, really, but origins are a far cloudier issue, the domain of the unconscious, mostly, so not readily available for truthful discussion. When I say that I don’t know whether my book started life as the story of a joint family in Calcutta at a critical juncture in history or as a reckoning with an ultra-left movement for social justice and equality around which the domestic story was built, I’m not only being truthful by acknowledging my ignorance of what came first, but also saying something else: that way of talking about a book as which narrative came first is always already too late because the origins lie far earlier.
What I can say as a kind of post-hoc explanation is that I wanted to write my big Bengali novel – except in English! – about the city I was born and brought up in, about the Bengali people and their culture and history and the forces shaping their world. Every writer has a reckoning with her history, whether it is personal or political, of a place or time or the general air breathed in; The Lives of Others was mine. There was no need to summon it; it was as if the book had already been there, waiting patiently to be let in; I only had to open the door.
In spring 2017, the RSL held an online ballot to find the Nation’s Favourite Second Novel. Find out which novel won here.